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The Great War: A Baylor University Museum Studies Exhibition
Team Foch

The War and Popular Culture

 

Introduction
By the early nineteenth century, sheet music publishing was well established in the United States.[i] With sheet music being so
prevalent it is no surprise that it often has reflected and even shaped popular culture. "An examination of sheet music reveals
something of the inner life of the American citizenry in a way distinguishable from diaries and newspaper accounts, while also
more intimate than the historian'sdescriptive synthesis."[ii] Sheet music reflected the culture of the time, especially during World War I.
Through analyzing the Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music from the time period we can begin to
understand the popular thought pattern of the general American public during this era. These pieces show how people viewed
different races and ethnicities, women, the military, and patriotism and the enemy, along with how these ideas often mingled with
each other throughout the span ofthe war. By observing this collection, one is able to understand the various cultural issues
that were represented through popular culture materials at this time.

 

Primary Themes
The sheet music from World War I in the Spencer Collection shows a nation that is wrestling with deep and conflicting ideologies
relating to race relations with African Americans. By the time of the war, slavery had only been abolished for 51 years, so there was
still much conflict and resentment in the way African Americans were viewed and expected to behave. There are many stereotypes
present in all the songs, such as that African Americans are lazy or afraid to fight for their country. Yet, all the African Americans
portrayed in the music do, in fact, fight for their country but with varying results. The African American soldiers were either brave
and patriotic, which therefore redeemed them from their negative stereotype, or they played into the stereotype as reluctant and
ineffective soldiers. For example, in the song “My Choc’late Soldier Sammy Boy,” a soldier is praised for his efforts in the war
and viewed with pride. In “Ragtime Drafted Man,” a reluctantly drafted soldier finds his patriotism while overseas and redeems
his earlier “lazy” characterization. While in stark contrast, the song “Jigadeer Johnson” tells the story of an African American who
is drafted but remains “lazy” and obstinate while overseas and cannot wait until his time is over so he can return home. However,
after examining the sheet music, it is clear that although African Americans were still stereotyped in a primarily negative fashion,
there were more examples of African Americans rising above their negatively portrayed “natures” than fulfilling them. Clearly, the
popular culture regarding African Americans in America was beginning to change for the better.

 

Another fascinating aspect of researching the artwork and messages found in the sheet music from World War I is the insight gained
into the perception and treatment of women during this time period. The variety of perspectives shown in the sheet music regarding
gender roles and behavior ranges from positive to negative. On the positive side, there is an appreciation of feminine faithfulness to
significant others, as well as women being complimented on their war efforts. However, there is also a distinct negative characterization
of both French and American women as promiscuous or unfaithful. Overall, the images depicting the status of women in America and
France are eye opening and very different from today.


Many pieces in the collection also focus on servicemen, particularly soldiers, as well as the military as a whole, and the moods of these
pieces cover a wide spectrum. While most portray the servicemen as patriots who willingly lay their lives down for their country, others
display the darker side of war, while still others comically discuss the new wartime experiences and responsibilities of the men. It is
significant that the military theme comprises such a large portion of this collection because it shows that those individuals were always
on the minds of the citizens back home, whether the songs agreed or disagreed with the cause. Of course, these songs were also used to
persuade men to volunteer for the fight by praising the character of the servicemen. However, the sheet music makes it clear that America
cannot be successful in the war without the dedication of her people.


Sheet music was also an effective means of propagandizing attitudes towards the nations involved in the war on both sides. This came in
both positive and negative forms. There are many examples of sheet music urging patriotism and duty to America: encouraging soldiers,
praising nurses, exhorting Americans to buy war bonds, and simply lauding America and her allies. Music was also used for inverse
patriotism, though, by villainizing the enemy. The Germans, especially, were a target of mockery and vilification by the Americans. This can
be seen in the ridicule, caricaturization, and contempt shown in the music and displayed in the sheet music artwork of the nations America
and her allies were fighting against.

 

Conclusion
During this era in the early phases of cinema and radio, sheet music played an important role as a primary form of entertainment for people
around the country. With the entrance of America into World War I, it only seems fitting that this popular pastime would be an ideal way to
influence the citizenry and spread already accepted ideas. The sheet music from this time period in the Frances G. Spencer Collection confirms
that race and ethnicity, gender roles, the military, and patriotism and villainization were popular topics in the country during the war, and they
were able to infiltrate popular culture in America.

 

View the Items in This Exhibit



Sources Consulted

[i] Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, “Historic American Sheet Music,” Duke University, http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/sheetmusic/about.html
(accessed April 22, 2013).


[ii] Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, “Historic American Sheet Music,” Duke University, under
“About the Collection at Duke,”
http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/sheetmusic/about.html
(accessed April 22, 2013).

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